It takes me a moment to notice that the the violent drops falling from the sky are no longer hitting my uncovered shoulders. When I look up, the stormy clouds have been replaced by an arm holding a big red umbrella that shelters me now. I turn my head looking for answers and my eyes meet a restrained stare. The night is obscure as the sky, still completely covered with clouds, and we are only surrounded by a soft yellow light leaving the nearest streetlamp. I can’t help being instantly grateful and I vaguely notice that I am probably smiling at this stranger in a green apron while tears still fall wildly down my face. So I look down and bring my hands up to wipe my face.
“A.. Are you okay?” He says. When I don’t reply, he reaches with his hand and holds my upper arm softly. “Hey,” the warmest voice leaves his mouth “are you okay?”. I start feeling like myself again and I flinch from his touch and take the tiniest step back. I find his stare again, but this time is mixed with hurt and surprise. He recovers quickly, as if he didn’t want me to see the battle in his eyes and everything is replaced by the slightest watchfulness. “Look, it’s pouring and you are soaked and shoeless. Please, come inside the cafe with me.” I take another small step back. “I work there, okay? We are already closed but you can’t stand here much longer without freezing, catching a cold or worst.” His words are firm and begging at the same time, but I don’t trust strangers. I don’t know him, I’ve barely seen him in the dim light of the street and as much as I have nowhere to go I’m a ‘better safe than sorry’ kind of girl. The grateful smile died on my lips the moment I realized this is a complete stranger holding an umbrella over my head that now is luring me inside a closed cafe. Real life is not a Nicholas Sparks novel. “No, I’m okay. Really.” I tell him looking down at my soaked bare feet. God, this is going to hurt tomorrow.
He looks at me with all the gravity of the situation shining through his eyes and lifts his free hand as sign of surrender. “Please, come inside to get dry. Or at least wait there until the rain stops.” I am trying really hard to gauge his intentions, and he has a deep green apron on so he must work in the cafe after all. There’s just something about him that compels me to believe him. Or it must be the apron. Fuck. I swallow all my pride and maybe unfounded doubts and I walk from under the umbrella. I turn and I head to the door’s cafe.
I thought she was walking away from me. For a second, I was sure she was going to flee and leave me standing here. That being the case, I have no clue what I would have done. Would I be able to let her walk away? Would running after her scare her even more? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions and I don’t trust myself to give it much more thought. She is entering the cafe right now and that’s all that matters. This gives me some time to think how to do this, maybe if I earn her trust first she would see things differently. Or maybe she doesn’t remember me at all, I didn’t even get a hint of recognition hitting her eyes when she looked at me. “Right.” I take a deep breath to regain some strength and I chase her shadow stepping through the door.
The bell on the door clings for the second time after I close it behind me and the noise seems to startle her. She turns to look at me and she crosses her arms over her chest looking down at her feet again. “The bathroom is on the right, at the end of the counter.” I say breaking the silence. She nods her head and takes a deep breath through her nose. I need her to look at me, I need to know if she recognizes me. “Look, you can…” I start. At the same time she lifts her head to say something but stops before talking. Hesitation and disbelief fill her eyes and her posture changes. “Do I…” she starts. Again, we seem to start talking at the same time. I clear my throat and repeat what I intended to say holding her stare. “That’s the bathroom for the staff, you’ll find a proper towel instead of the paper ones.” She shakes off whatever she was about to say and uncrosses her arms. “Thanks.” she says over her shoulder heading to the bathroom.
While she’s gone I look for the extra uniform shirt I usually keep here just in case. It will be too big on her but it’s better than the soaked tank top she’s wearing. When I find it, I knock on the staff bathroom door, “Hey, I have a shirt for you to change. You can borrow it or… something.” Borrow it or something? I sound like a teenager trying to impress his crush. I lean my forefront on the door with defeat while I wait for her to reply. “Just leave it on the floor and I’ll pick it up. I, erm, can’t open the door right now.” I fight the mental images assaulting me and I do as she says. “Okay, I’ll leave it here. I have stuff to do so, yeah, so I’ll be here. Come out when you are ready.” What is happening to me? I have lost all ability to put together sentences. I busy myself while she gets ready and I hear in the background the bathroom door softly closing.
After 10 minutes of unproductive cleaning with my mind going a hundred miles per hour, I hear her clearing her throat behind me. “So, I assume you are Mr. Prince Charming.” I turn and I see her pointing to the name embroidered on the shirt I gave her. “The one and only.” I laugh softly and look down at the identical shirt I’m wearing. She looks around and sighs. “Did I step in a land far far away without knowing?” I laugh to myself completely this time. “Almost,” I say while I point to the red letters above the big coffee machine sitting on the counter. “welcome to Wonderland Cafe.”
She doesn’t react at first and then she throws her head back and a roaring laugh leaves her. It is definitely a loud laughter for someone so petite, some might say it’s not a even feminine one but I find myself craving to hear it a second time. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” She says with a tone charged with irony. “So, Mr. Prince Charming, I think a thank you is in order. You didn’t have to do this, much less giving me a shirt. But thank you.”
I smile at her quietly and for the second time today, I do something I am not ready for yet. “I am Mason.” Doubt floods her face again while I brace myself for that moment. “Ailie.” She replies curtly. Neither of us extends one arm to shake hands as we stand there looking at each other. Suddenly the cafe feels ten times smaller and a hundred times quieter. I look in my head for something to say to break the awkward atmosphere. “At your disposal, milady.” My funny remark is not so funny after all and seems to cause the opposite effect. “I am not a damsel in distress and I don’t need your help, okay? So I’m just going to leave. I’ll return the shirt tomorrow.” She heads quickly for the door but I stop her one step short of reaching it. I grab her elbow carefully but firmly.
“Do you have anywhere to go?” I am being blunt but something in my gut is shouting at me that she doesn’t. “Listen, please.” I continue. “You looked lost out there, and I am not stupid. Someone doesn’t just leave home with no shoes and stands in the rain crying.” I don’t miss her reaction to my last remark, she flinched slightly. Almost unnoticeable but I am sure she did. “Ailie, I’m just trying to help here.” She turns then and I can see how her small body is giving in to whatever is in her mind right now. “You can come to my place, I have enough room…” That breaks the moment and she briskly builds all the walls I thought were slowly crumbling seconds ago. “No.” Ailie cuts me. “Okay, wrong thing to say.” I lift my arm and bring my hand to the back of my neck while I think how to fix this. How to not scare her away again. How not to make her flinch. “There is a small room in the back room of the cafe, there is an old coach. I don’t even know why but it was already there when I started working here. You can crush here tonight, I don’t know if it’s even going to stop raining any time soon. It sure doesn’t look like it.”
Ailie is weighing my words and my intentions, I want to kick myself for even suggesting she could come to my place tonight. She must think I am trying to lure her or seduce her or God knows what. “I am the last and first here every day. I am closing tonight and I’ll be opening tomorrow morning.” Please stay tonight, I want to tell her. “Pl…” I start but she cuts me. “Okay.” She agrees. “Okay.” She repeats almost to herself.
“Okay.” I say relieved. “Thank you.” Why am I thanking her, I am not sure myself. But I do know one thing and that is that this changes everything. This gives me time. And that’s something we should not take for granted in life.